Chiswick’s Tidefest organiser Martin Salter instrumental in forcing Government’s U-turn on environment bill

Image above: Overflow pipes discharging waste-water; photograph Angling Trust

The Government is expected to publish an amendment to the environment bill this week, making water companies legally responsible for repairing the sewage system, and it is due to be debated again in Parliament on 8 November.

They were forced into a U-turn after Conservative MPs, content initially to follow the party line and vote to allow water companies to continue to dump raw sewage because finding alternatives is expensive, were named and shamed on social media, forcing the Government to bow to a rising tide of public pressure on the issue.

Key to changing backbenchers’ minds was pressure from the Angling Trust, whose head of policy is Martin Salter. He organises the annual Tidefest event in Chiswick.

According to the Environment Agency, water firms discharged raw sewage into English waters 400,000 times in 2020, a 27% increase on the previous year. This includes regular discharges from Mogden Sewage Works in Isleworth into the Thames, when the incoming storm water and sewage exceeds the capacity of the storm tanks, built to hold back excess water until it can be processed.

Images above: Drone footage by Mike Owens, of Hayling Sewage Watch, and Chris Pearsall of Langstone harbour; Map by Surfers against Sewage with red crosses marking where pollution risk warnings are in place

Images which circulated last week of a pipe discharging sewage into the sea and a map showing all the places round the coast and in inland rivers where this is happening, created a deluge of complaints from constituents to their MPs. Chiswick’s two Labour MPs, Ruth Cadbury and Rupa Huq both voted against the amendment which would have let water companies off the hook. So did 22 Conservative MPs. 

The backbench rebellion was not enough to win the case for including an amendment which would have made the water companies responsible for improving the system but the backlash of complaints from the public to those MPs who supported the bill took the Government by surprise. On 26 October they announced a partial U-turn.

“Following a debate in the House of Commons last week during the final stages of the environment bill, today we are announcing that we will put that commitment on a statutory footing with a new clause”, said a Government spokesperson.

Images above: Sewage in the River Thames at Strand on the Green

A cross-bench peer told the Evening Standard:

“This is particularly important for London. Anyone who saw the BBC Panorama programme in April will have learned about the embarrassing state of the riverbed of the Thames and the enormous quantity of sewage, which is regularly discharged into the river.”

Martin Salter, head of policy for the Angling Trust, shared a platform with the Environment Secretary George Eustice at the Conservative Party conference, armed with the damning information from a report by the Angling Trust and Salmon & Trout Conservation: Time to Fix the Broken Water Sector, which called on the Government to issue clear and unambiguous instructions to the water regulator Ofwat to compel and enable water companies to repair sewerage systems and invest in adequate resources for water supply.

It was anglers also who first approached Conservative MP Philip Dunne, the chair of the environmental audit committee, who introduced a private members’ bill last year to place a duty on water companies to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers and inland waterways.

The Angling Trust and the Salmon & Trout Conservation have been working with Surfers Against Sewage and the Rivers Trust. Their research highlighted facts such as the rate at which water companies have been replcaing old pipes – 0.05% per year, a rate at which it would take 2,000 years to replace the whole network.

Image above: Overflow pipes; photograph Rivers Trust

Martin told The Chiswick Calendar he was expecting the amendment to the environment bill to introduce a legal duty on water companies to address the problem. Such is the weight of public opinion, he is not expecting the Government to fudge the issue.

“We’re not expecting any dirty dealings,” he said. “It’s expected to be very similar to the Duke of Wellington’s amendment, which only a few days ago they were claiming was unaffordable and they are now putting their names to”.

He wants to ensure the practical steps necessary to curb the worst of the polluting overflows of sewage are taken as quickly as possible.

“What should be sparkling clear tributaries which feed into the Thames – the Evenlode, the Windrush and nearer London the Lea have been heavily impacted. All of these are priorities.”

Martin has written a blog explaining why so many Conservative MPs were persuaded to vote to allow water companies to continue dumping. It is, he says, because the figures they were given for the cost of upgrading the system were ludicrously inflated.

“They were sold a crock of shit,” he says.

This is his blog post on the subject, reproduced with the permission of the Angling Trust.

Back paddling up the creek

by Martin Salter

Images above: Martin Salter; Angling competition which is part of the annual Tidefest at Strand on the Green – photograph Anna Kunst

Spare a thought for loyal government backbenchers trying to explain their decision to obey the party whips and vote down last week’s Lords Amendment to require water companies to take action to end storm discharges of untreated sewage into the rivers and waterways so beloved by their constituents.

This morning they wake up to the news that they are now expected to perform very public political contortions in a collective U-turn and vote for a new Government amendment which is, according to last night’s DEFRA press release – “very similar to Amendment 45 in the name of the Duke of Wellington, which was debated in the House of Commons on Tuesday.”

And the embarrassment doesn’t end there. Briefings sent to MPs to help them deal with the tidal wave of sometimes angry correspondence from their voters have been exposed as a complete and utter sham.

The identikit replies they faithfully and unquestionably sent out, claiming that the Lords amendment was unworkable and came with an eye-watering price tag of between £150bn and £660 bn, bears no relation to either reality or the findings of the Government’s own task force.

I’ve never met the MP David ? (we don’t full name and shame these days) but one of our supporters kindly sent me a copy of his standard email to constituents and it is strangely similar to many others we have seen. He helpfully posted it online because he felt – “some of the online commentary…has been very misleading.” Words I’m afraid that now need eating rather quickly.
In common with other government loyalists David reproduced ‘the line to take’ saying:

‘The most important thing to know about this amendment is that the Government already has a plan to tackle storm overflows and this particular amendment – which had no plan whatsoever – could have left the public on the hook for between £150 bn and £660 bn in spending.

‘That is billion, not million – the lower estimate is more than the police, schools and defence budgets put together; the upper estimate is three times the budget of the NHS.

‘The reason for this is because our sewerage systems are very old and at the moment in order to completely eliminate the problem of storm overflows you’d have to completely separate the systems, leading to huge cost and the likelihood of significant disruption for homes, businesses and our national infrastructure’.

Fair enough if it was vaguely true but it isn’t.

Firstly, no one in their right mind is talking about complete separation of rain and waste-water systems. As my colleague Christine Colvin from The Rivers Trust wrote in her excellent blog:

“The amendment does not require the ‘complete separation of the sewerage systems’. Some of it actually works already.

“Our entire system is not Victorian and some areas, such as those to be served by the Thames Tideway, have received recent investment … Nobody is proposing digging up our entire sewerage network and starting from scratch.

“Some of our sewer systems are not combined; some systems are not overflowing to the point that they result in harm. Many chronic overflows could be resolved with upstream, cheaper nature-based solutions”.

You can read it in full here – Sewage, scaremongering and the red herrings of costing – Rivers Trust

Image above: Report by the Angling Trust and Salmon and Trout Conservation

And then there is the somewhat embarrassing report from the Government-led Storm Overflow Taskforce which DEFRA has been trying to suppress all week and whose figures their spin doctors have been deliberately misquoting.

It included representatives of the water industry, Environment Agency, Ofwat, environmental groups, and remit was to explore policy options that reduce the occurrence of storm overflows and any harm that is caused.

The fantasy figure of £660bn appears nowhere in the report which actually cites a range of lower cost options for progressively dealing with the worst and most damaging sewage discharges ranging from £3.9bn to £62.7bn with only modest impact on average water bills in the region of £19 to £58 per year.

This is a far cry from the £1000 bill hike claimed by the Prime Ministers spokesman at yesterday’s Downing St briefing.

The problem for David and his colleagues is that ministers never thought to share the true facts with them, preferring instead to selectively misquote figures from a report they kept hidden.
Fortunately those of us who have been working on this issue for many years tend to get to see these things and when dirty dealings are afoot it is only right that the truth should come out.

I don’t blame MPs for assuming their party briefings have at least a basis in reality. I used to do the same myself when I did the job on behalf of the good people of Reading.

No MP can be an expert on everything but for goodness’ sake, is it too much to expect a degree of rational enquiry from what is, on the whole, an intelligent and opinionated group of people?

Here’s a thing. If Thames Water can build the massive Thames Tideway Tunnel, intercepting 34 of the 36 most polluting storm overflows in London, at a cost of £4.6bn and just £18 on water bills for a city of over 8 million people, it defies all logic that a countrywide solution for 65 million people (London x 8) is going to cost anything remotely like the scaremongering figure of £660bn.

Failure to question the tidal wave of political crap that was being pumped out prior to last night’s ‘screeching U-turn’ has, I’m afraid, left a good number of Honourable Members trying to back paddle their way out of Shit Creek.

What happens next?

The Angling Trust will continue working jointly with The Rivers Trust, Surfers Against Sewage, Salmon & Trout Conservation and others in trying to get the best possible outcomes for our ailing rivers.

We will look carefully at the Government’s new amendment when it’s published and we will have particular focus on the forthcoming Strategic Policy Statement for Water (SPS) which sets the framework for water industry investment over the next five year period.

You can read more in our recent joint paper with Salmon & Trout Conservation – Time to Fix our Broken Water Sector.

Martin Salter is the Angling Trust’s Head of Policy and was for 13 years (1997 – 2010 until he retired), Labour MP for Reading West.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Chiswick’s MPs voted against dumping untreated sewage in rivers

See also: Diluted sewage “geyser” erupts at Hammersmith Bridge

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